Wednesday 4th January 2017
It was a Gray Line Iceland tour that promised a morning of riding Icelandic horses through the valleys at Laxnes Horse Farm (i.e. me living in a viking fantasy) and an afternoon of exploring Iceland’s famous ‘Golden Circle’:
- Þingvellir National Park
- The Gullfoss waterfall
- Hot springs at Geyser geothermal area
The day began with a pick-up from my hostel on the outskirts of Reykjavik, before another transfer to Laxnes Horse Farm, Mosfellsbaer. By the time we arrived, at around 10:30, it was starting to get light. We were bundled into huge waterproof boiler suits, kitted out with helmets and proffered additional hats and gloves: the wind was literally whistling through the hills; I couldn’t decide if it was magical or ominous. It was bitterly cold, and I would recommend thermals all the way (as it happened, I was wearing three layers of trousers).
We were paired with our horses loosely based on our riding abilities. I was greeted by the son/owner of the farm, who declared it a “travesty” that I had ridden English and Western but never Icelandic, and that this should be immediately remedied by a speedy little ginger mare called ‘Freyja’, who “likes to run fast and be at the front”. Normally these words wouldn’t worry me too much, having many years of riding experience under my belt, but at this point I decided that the whistling wind did indeed sound ominous, the murky mid-morning light spooky, and my Viking fantasy was soon replaced with the reality of riding a “speedy” horse wearing metal shoes over icy ground.
Nevertheless we set off with maybe 25 Icelandic horses and 25 immediately frozen riders, and Freya and I soon came to an understanding: as long as I let her go at the front of the herd, she would try not to slip on the ice and break my legs. We took a windy route initially along a (very quiet) road littered with very hygge-ish looking houses, and then up into the hills on the opposite side of the valley. Remarkably, the boiler suit addition to my Icelandic fashion ensemble was doing its job, and apart from my fingers (which I had long ago given up hope for), I had warmed up and was thoroughly enjoying myself. We had several opportunities for tölting, a sensationally smooth and productive gait unique to Icelandic horses. We stopped at our highest point, dismounted (with some hilarity, as various members of the group negotiated frozen limbs from fixed positions) and took some photos. Our guides were impeccable and the horses very well behaved and safe.
After the next stage of hilarity (negotiating frozen limbs back into the saddle – one member of our group was aided by one of our guides with so much gusto that she went too far over her horses’ back and landed in an (uninjured and giggling) pile on the other side), it was back to Laxnes Horse Farm via a different route and more joviality. After a goodbye and thank you to Freyja for getting me back in one piece, we were ushered to a bar area adorned with photos of famous visitors to the farm, including Viggo Mortenson (that’s Aragon to you) and Ben Stiller. There, for a small price, we could purchase hot vegetable soup and freshly baked bread and pastries to warm our bones. This was a most welcome treat, and I happily scoffed while chatting to a couple who it turned out were English and from a town not 20 miles from mine – what a small world!
At about 13:30 we said goodbye to lovely Laxnes and hello to a big Gray Line coach which collected those of us smelling of horse and we joined an almost full bus load of passengers (looking somewhat dismayed at our windswept appearance and ‘rustic’ smell), and we were off on our Golden Circle tour, racing against the clock and diminishing light. Our friendly guide told us stories of Iceland and its history, the hygge and book culture, his disappointment at a new generation of Icelanders more glued to their iPhones than their books, and the vegetation on Iceland (or lack of – when the Vikings landed, they documented in their sagas that Iceland was forested “from mountain to shore”, but over-farming and use of wood for construction meant that vegetation fell dramatically, though several organisations are working hard to remedy this).
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park (the name deriving from the Old Norse Þingvǫllr: þing meaning “thing”, and vǫllr meaning “field”), a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historical and cultural significance. The world’s first parliament, Althing, was established here in 930 AD. Þingvellir also houses the meeting of the North American and Eurasian continental plates (check out my post ‘As Above is Not as it is Below‘ about snorkelling in the fissure between them!), Almannagjá gorge, which marks the eastern boundary of the North American continental plate, and Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake. It also turned out to be the location of my (failed) attempt to see the Northern Lights the previous night, unbeknown to me as I had stumbled about in the dark. This stop was about 30 minutes, and offered enough time to walk down the Almannagjá gorge to see the remains of the historical sites and get a taste of the beauty of the volcanic environment. There were numerous walkways and trails leading off in various directions that looked tempting, and fleetingly I felt restrained by the tour’s schedule and not able to explore more. Indeed hiring one’s own car and negotiating Iceland alone would have its advantages, and if (when) I go back to Iceland, this is the option I will choose. But for my first time in Iceland and travelling solo, unsure of the driving conditions, terrain and the customs, I had opted to be chauffeured around in comfort.
Anyway, already bitterly cold after just 30 minutes (was this due to cold temperatures, an inadequate layering system or both, I asked myself) I was glad to be on the warm bus again and en route to stop two – the Gullfoss Waterfall on the Hvítá River. The water crashes down at a rate of about 80 cubic metres per second in the winter, and almost doubles in the summer on account of melting glacial water. It was a shame that it was an overcast day as this was one of the first properly snowy areas in Iceland I had seen; the white of the snow would have contrasted so beautifully with a blue sky. A trail offering closer views was shut due to the amount of ice on that particular path (crampons would not have helped you). I took a less precarious route past a stone memorial to Sigríður Tómasdóttir, a local farm woman who fought for years to save the waterfall from being rented out to foreign investors for power, and was successful in her plight.
Back on board the bus for our third and final stop, it was a short drive back the way we had come to the geysers at Haukadalur, and Strokkur specifically. Due to the short days, it occurred to me that much of my time in Iceland had been spent driving, and relatively little out and exploring. I decided that if (when) I return, it should be in summer, when 24 hour daylight would offer more opportunity for adventure. As it was, we had just enough waning light left to watch several geysers erupt, and to see Strokkur erupt 40m into the air. Twice. Then plunged into darkness, we had some time to explore the gift shop there, a gem for those with the kind of money needed to buy traditional Icelandic wool clothing. Back on board it was a smooth trip back to Reykjavik main station and then a shuttle bus back to my hostel.
This tour is an excellent way to get the most out of the short daylight hours in winter in Iceland, or just as an excuse to pretend to be a Viking for the day.